An interview with Leah Adler, Steven Spielberg's mother
The restaurant could only be in California: shingled on the outside, kosher on the inside, it is the unlikely domain of Leah Adler, a petite blonde godsend whose responsibilities include planning the menus, greeting the guests, and -- whenever her son has a new movie out -- hanging the posters.
The movie posters -- nine so far -- are Leah's way of telling anyone who doesn't know it that her son is Steven Spielberg. Four of the ten biggest grossing pictures of all time (Jaws, E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, and its sequel, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) are heralded on Leah Adler's wall. Together they have made Steven the most popular movie director ever.
Leah is right to show off. Among the reasons for Spielberg's success are his incredible energy, his unselfconscious sense of humor, and his youthful, wide-eyed innocence -- qualities he obviously inherited from Leah. Leah projects the same rapturous naivete as Steven's protagonists as she ricochets from table to table, joyously igniting conversations in every corner of the room. And when the phone rings, Leah positively leaps across the room to get it.
"The restaurant," Leah says, "is like a stage. I feel like I'm opening in a play every night. I thrive on the whole thing."
From the looks on their faces, Leah's customers do too. Not surprisingly, the restaurant is a smash. "Even Steven Spielberg," Leah jokes, "can't come without making a reservation."
"I didn't totally understand Close Encounters," admits Leah as she settles into a booth in a corner of the restaurant. "But Jaws I liked better. At one point, I heard somebody in the theater screaming at the top of her lungs --and then I realized it was me."
Practically every day, someone at the restaurant -- often someone who mistakenly addresses her as "Mrs. Spielberg" -- asks her if she always knew that Steven was a genius.
Leah has an answer ready: "When he was growing up, I didn't know he was a genius. Frankly, I didn't know what the hell he was. I'm really ashamed, but I didn't recognize the symptoms of talent. I did him an injustice. I had no idea back then that my son would be Steven Spielberg."
"For one thing -- and he'll probably take away my charge accounts for saying this -- Steven was never a good student. Once, his teacher told me was ‘special' -- and I wondered how she meant it."
"You see, Steven wasn't exactly cuddly. What he was was scary. When Steven woke up from a nap, I shook." Long before Gremlins, Steven was a master at creating terror. He practiced on his three kid sisters. Says Leah, "He used to stand outside their windows at night, howling, "I am the moon. I am the moon." They're still scared of the moon. And he cut off the head of one of Nancy's dolls and served it to her on a bed of lettuce."
"The first thing I'd do when we moved to a new house was look for a baby sitter," Leah says. "But it didn't work, because they wouldn't let us go out for more than a few hours without taking Steven."
"Once," Leah remembers, "I took Steven to the Grand Canyon. He said, ‘This is nice,' and then he threw up. With Steven, you held on for dear life."
"I mean, I didn't know how to raise children," Leah continues. "Maybe, we were more normal than I remember -- but I sincerely doubt it. Steven's room was such a mess, you could grow mushrooms on the floor. Once his lizard got out of its cage, and we found it -- three years later. He had a parakeet he refused to keep in a cage altogether. It was disgusting. Once a week, I would stick my head in, grab his dirty laundry, and slam the door."
"If I had known better," she says, "I would have taken him to a psychiatrist, and there would never have been an E.T."
Leah is only kidding. "We had a great time," she says, "We really did. I loved when the new toys came out. I couldn't wait to get them home."
How did Leah get to be so "up"?
"I don't think you can cultivate these things," says Leah. "An up person is always up. You get it from your parents."
"Mine was not a conventional childhood at all," Leah continues, "For one thing, my mother and father were madly in love with each other their whole lives, and I thought that's how everybody lived."
Leah's mother, Jennie Posner, was a public speaker. "When they opened a building, they'd hire her to speak. She had a speaking voice like a singing voice. I remember her walking around the house, practicing her speeches while she dusted. She mostly missed the dust -- she was never too domestic. She was a marvelous lady who never mastered the can opener in her whole life."
Leah's father was more down to earth. Phillip Posner, a Russian immigrant, never earned a living, but that's not what Leah remembers. "My father was so exciting," she says. "I have memories -- color memories -- of walking through a snowstorm in Cincinnati. It was glistening, and he looked up and said, ‘How wondrous are thy works.'" Leah is teary-eyed. "‘How wondrous are thy works.' This is who I am. This is who Steven is."
Phillip's family included a brother who was a Yiddish Shakespearean actor. "I remember him in the living room doing ‘To be or not to be' in Yiddish. Another brother, Boris, was a vaudevillian – "he used to dance with a straw hat and a cane. Later, he became a lion tamer in the circus." Officially, Leah's father was in the shmatte (clothing) business, but what he really liked to do was dance ballet and play guitar." He was so creative," Leah sighs, "and beautiful to look at."
"We were poor," she adds, "but there was no depression in our house. We didn't know what we didn't have. And we liked what we did have. I remember going to bed thinking, 'Wow, I have new shoes,' and jumping out of bed in the middle of the night to look at my new shoes. Now that I can have everything, I've lost that."
Leah remembers a time when the family barely ate for several days. Finally, her father was able to earn ten dollars buying and selling old jewelry. "He came home with ten dollars and said, 'We're going on vacation.' And we did. That's faith."
Life gave Leah another advantage. "I was different looking, but I never wanted to change. If I had a tiny pug nose maybe I wouldn't have had to develop a personality. But, instead, I learned to play the piano. I was somebody. I loved my life, and I believed in me."
Leah studied to become a concert pianist, but she gave up that ambition when she married Arnold Spielberg, an engineer, and moved with him from Ohio to Arizona.
She also moved away from her religion. Though Leah was raised in an Orthodox home (and she embraced Hasidism when she married second husband Bernard Adler), she chose to raise her children in a Gentile neighborhood. She calls that "my one really big mistake."
"The kids next door used to stand outside yelling, 'The Spielbergs are dirty Jews. The Spielbergs are dirty Jews,'" Leah remembers. "So one night, Steven snuck out of the house and peanut-buttered all their windows."
Leah indulged him. "I was never a typical parent," she says. "I think if a kid wants something, he ought to have it."
Once Steven wanted a job painting a neighbor's tree trunks white. Reports Leah, "He did three trees; guess who did the rest? And once we asked him to paint the bathroom. He did the toilet and the mirror, then he quit."
Leah's mother saw something she didn't. "My mother always used to say. 'The world is going to hear of this boy.' I used to think she said it so I wouldn't kill him."
Steven became even more demanding after he joined the Boy Scouts and signed up for a Merit Badge in moviemaking. Steven's father bought him a Super-8 camera. Reports Leah of her house, "The décor from then on consisted of white walls, blue carpeting, and tripods."
When he wasn't shooting at home, Steven would take the family on location. "My car back then was a 1950 Army surplus jeep. We would load it up and drive into the desert. Steven had the whole family dressed up in ridiculous costumes. He'd say, 'Stand behind that cactus,' and I actually did it. I also supplied the cold cuts."
When he was fourteen, Steven made his first full-length movie, a sci-fi flick called Firelight, and he got a theater in Phoenix to show it. It was Leah who put up the letters on the marquee. I thought, "This is a nice hobby." Incredibly, the film made money, and there was no stopping Steven. Once, Leah recalls, "he wanted to shoot a scene in a hospital, and they closed down an entire wing. Another time, he needed to shoot at an airport, and they gave him a whole runway. Nobody ever said no to Steven. He gets what he wants, anyway, so the name of the game is to save your strength and say yes early."
At least once, she should have said no -- early. Steven wanted to do a scene (similar to the one in Poltergeist twenty years later) in which something horrible came oozing out of Leah's kitchen cabinets. She not only agreed but went to the supermarket and bought thirty cans of cherries, which she cooked in a pressure cooker until they exploded all over the room. "For years after that," she jokes, "my routine every morning was to go downstairs, put the coffee on, and wipe cherry residue off the cabinets."
Her routine changed dramatically after she divorced Arnold Spielberg, settled in California, and fell in love with Bernard Adler. (When I ask her how long she and Adler have been married, Leah says, "Not long enough.") Seven years ago, they opened the restaurant together and together they spend more than twelve hours a day there. "For it to be kosher, an Orthodox Jew has to be here at all times," explains Leah. "We really go home just to sleep."
And for shabbes. "By two o'clock on Friday," she says, "I'm ready to collapse. But shabbes is a restorer." Most Saturdays, the Adlers take part in a Hasidic service in West L.A. "Everything looks different on shabbes," she says. "Everything glistens."
Everything glistens in Steven's world, too. At eighteen, he began hanging out at Universal Studios, pretending to have a job there. Soon he did. At nineteen, he sold his first script, and with the proceeds he bought a TV for his mother. There have been many other presents. Says Leah, "He spoils me rotten, like I spoiled him. Of course, I buy him beautiful presents, too, but I charge them all to him."
Now that Steven is a mogul, the only thing that's changed, Leah says, is "you can't expect him to come to dinner at the time you invite him." But when he does come, they have "normal family conversations." I say, "Hi, Steven,' and he says, 'Hi, Ma, what's for dinner?' When he's scoring a movie, he calls and says, 'Come over, we need your musical advice.' It's a crock, but I love hearing it. He's very family-oriented."
Steven gave Leah a bit part in an episode of Amazing Stories, his TV series. "I was the only extra who got a limousine," jokes Leah. During breaks in shooting -- some of which lasted hours -- Leah hung out in Steven's office. According to Leah, he said, "I love coming back and finding you here. Could you come more often?"
Another time, Leah says, she got a call from Steven's secretary. "Steven is sick," she said, "and he want you to make him a pot of chicken soup. We'll send a limousine to get it." Leah, who was at the Milky Way, said, "Steven knows this is a dairy restaurant and I can't make chicken soup here." Five minutes later, Leah says, the secretary called back and said, "Steven says, 'Go home and make it."
Did she? "Of course," says Leah. "No one else makes Steven his chicken soup."
Leah is equally devoted to her daughters, Nancy, who's in the jewelry business in New York ("When she comes out, we steam up the diamond cases at Neiman-Marcus"); Susan, a mother ("She puts her creativity into raising her two children"); and Anne, a screenwriter ("She's paying rent and eating and everything these days."). I don't feel I own these kids," says Leah. "It's not that they're reflecting me, or that I'm living vicariously through them. It's just that I really like them."
Leah's one regret is that her parents didn't live to see Steven fulfill his dreams. "Every time I get into a limousine, I want to say, 'Hi, folks, look at me.' But Steven always says, 'Don't worry, Ma, they know.'"
In that case, they know how much fun Leah is having. "I get all the glory," she says, as she walks past one of Steven Spielberg's movie posters. "I eat it up. And all I have to do is be the mother."
Update by Fred A. Bernstein
Since my first meeting with Leah Adler, she has seen her son tackle the difficult subject of the Holocaust with his Oscar-winning Schindler's List and his visionary Shoah Project.
Leah recently lost her second husband, her beloved Bernie, but she still comes to the restaurant every day. I visit her whenever I'm in California. (I recommend the jalapeno latkes.)
Leah has done lots of interviews since I "discovered" her. I once heard her tell a customer: "Steven Spielberg didn't make me famous. Fred Bernstein made me famous."
I should be so lucky!